Lightning take away Rangers' home ice advantage to close in on Stanley Cup Final berth

Mikhail Sergachev had the tying and assisted on the go-ahead goal and Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 24 of 25 shots as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Final.

“If there’s a sport where having home advantage may not be as influential, it’s our sport.” —Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning

Before the New York Rangers trudged out of Tampa, their early series momentum a distant memory in what had suddenly turned into a best-of-three, they all cited home ice as an advantage.

Madison Square Garden.

In the world’s most famous arena, before the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ most famous fanbase, the Blueshirts had steamrolled opponents to an 8-1 playoff record. Igor Shesterkin had been lights-out in the City That Never Sleeps. Stud centre Mika Zibanejad had a six-game goal streak rolling at home, and he wouldn’t be saddled with that pesky Anthony Cirelli dogging him all night long.

Ranger rental Andrew Copp had already felt the influence of his new home. Last change would help, of course. The beer-guzzling, chant-inventing supporters could pick them if they stumbled, propel them higher if they got up. And then there was something psychological at play, a confidence woven into the darker sweaters.

“The home teams are supposed to win, in general,” Copp told reporters. “For whatever reason, MSG has been a good home to us.”

They say no series truly begins until someone loses at home. So, with the Tampa Bay Lightning squeaking out a 3-1 victory on enemy territory Thursday, this series could be finished Saturday night.

If a noisy, star-laden barn wasn’t enough, the Rangers got a boost with the return of not one but two healthy centremen to their lineup, Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil.

And a second jolt when hardnosed defenceman Ryan Lindgren fluttered a puck high-blocker past Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the home side a 1-0 lead halfway through the event.

Once again, the Rangers appeared to be using their own barn to their advantage.

“How are we going to fight through that?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper wondered. “Are we going to stick to what we know has worked? Are we going to be able to fight through checks? Are we going to be able to fight through crowd noise? Those are things that, if you want to win the Stanley Cup, you have to do.

“It’s going to take everything we have – and probably more – to win a game on the road.”

The champions cut through the noise and trampled adversity, unbreaking from their game plan.

Remember, the Lightning didn’t own home ice in Rounds 1 and 2, either. They’re used to this.

“We knew it was going to be a low-scoring grind game, and the team that was just going to keep grinding the most (would win),” Steven Stamkos said. “When you stick with it long enough, usually you get rewarded.”

Defenceman Mikhail Sergachev tied the low-event game with a seeing-eye wrist shot from the point that weaved unblocked through seven bodies from his blade to the net, the final one belonging to Shesterkin.

Corey Perry was the final screen, an obtrusive, obnoxious pillar smack in Shesterkin’s sightline.

“It’s a matter of taking his eyes away. It’s a matter of being there, but not in the blue,” Perry explained.

“As (the tournament) gets deeper, goals are harder to come by. You have to work a little bit harder. It’s not always going to be those great passing plays. It’s going to be rebounds or tips—and those goals are scored right in front of the net. So, somebody has to go there.

“He’s a great goalie. If he sees the puck, he’s gonna stop it.”

Game 5’s defensive struggle appeared to be grinding toward overtime until a second Sergachev shot through traffic (only six bodies this time) deflected off Ondrej Palat’s leg for the winner with 110 seconds remaining on the clock.

“I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before,” said Sergachev, after his whole body jiggled with joy.

A Brandon Hagel empty-netter sealed it.

“Doesn’t matter where we’re playing,” Tampa’s Victor Hedman said. “If we’re playing on a pond outside or at MSG, we want to win the game.”

Now, the Lightning will take a 3-2 series lead and some stacked odds back to Tampa Bay, back under those banners, with a chance to clinch its 11th consecutive series on Saturday.

Home ice will be in Tampa’s favour. Ditto the math. Seventy-nine per cent of teams that win Game 5 of a tied series go on to advance.

But it’s a homer series no more.

“We've been down 3-2 every series so far,” Copp pointed out. “We have to have a level of desperation. I think the confidence of doing it before is bigger and better than having to do again. I think there's the belief in the room.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• When was the last time two first-overall draft picks dropped the gloves in a playoff game?

“That’s what great captains do,” Palat said. “And he is.”

• Brayden Point (lower body) missed his ninth straight game. Intrigue will once again hover over the star centre’s availability Saturday for Game 6.

“We’re anxiously waiting,” teammate Ryan McDonagh said. “You’ve got to go out there and be effective, not just go through the motions. This is playoff hockey. It’s different from regular season. It’s faster, more intense.

“So, you’ve got to be honest with yourself and only put yourself in a position to help the team, not hurt the team. And we trust Pointer.”

• Ondrej Palat smartly ducks a Jacob Trouba flying chicken wing:

• The Rangers have scored just four goals (and only one at even-strength) on Vasilevskiy during this three-game losing skid.

• Plenty of celebrity sightings.

NHL Awards host Kenan Thompson was wearing an OutKast shirt I would like for Father’s Day, please.

And Rangers/Islanders fan Jimmy Fallon apparently eats hot dogs with the same vigor Lindgren eats pucks.

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